Emphasising the economic importance of the Indian Ocean, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has said that nurturing a climate of peace and stability in the region is a priority for India’s foreign policy which is based on “inter-dependence rather than dominance”.
Addressing the 3rd Indian Ocean Conference here on Monday, Swaraj said with the eastward shift of the engines of the global economy, the Indian Ocean is at the centre of the emerging “Age of Asia” and those who live in this region bear the primary responsibility for peace, stability and prosperity in the region.
Swaraj’s comments assume significance in the wake of China increasing its footprints in the Indian Ocean, which figures prominently in President Xi Jinping’s ambitious ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative to build a new Silk Route.
India is opposed to the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative as it includes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which transverses through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
China has stepped up activities in the Indian Ocean as it is building ports and other infrastructure in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Swaraj said the economic importance of the Indian Ocean and its vital role in the continued prosperity and development of the littoral nations is well established.
“This region is host to the world’s busiest waterways and three-quarters of that traffic is headed for destinations beyond our region,” Swaraj said.
“As an important trade and energy waterway, carrying half the world’s container shipment, one-third of its bulk cargo traffic and two thirds of oil shipments, the Indian Ocean clearly assumes importance well beyond its immediate shores and its littorals,” she said.
“Nurturing a climate of peace and stability in this region is therefore an important priority for our foreign policy,” Swaraj added.
The Indian Ocean, which borders Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia, is home to major sea lanes and choke points that are crucial to global trade. Nearly 40 per cent of the world’s offshore petroleum is produced in the Indian Ocean, which also has rich mineral deposits and fisheries.
She said “the bounty” of the Indian Ocean cannot be tapped without ensuring maritime peace and stability.
“Economic prosperity and maritime security go hand-in-hand. Security is an all-encompassing concept and includes traditional, non-traditional and newly emerging threats like maritime terrorism, smuggling, transnational crimes, drug-trafficking, illegal immigration, unregulated fishing, piracy, unregulated private maritime security companies and proliferation of sensitive items,” she said.
She said India sees Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as central to the regional maritime architecture.
“This was recognised by our leaders during the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in January this year. In the Delhi Declaration issued to mark this occasion, we reiterated the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability and maritime safety and security, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.”
Underlining the importance of effective partnerships, both at the regional as well as multilateral level, Swaraj said India considers the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) as an important instrument for achieving peace and security in the region.
The focus of the IORA on maritime safety and security promotes a shared understanding of maritime issues, and helps develop cooperative mechanisms, she said.
Emphasising that India shares a common vision for the Indo-Pacific, she said Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 put forward the concept of SAGAR, proposing a holistic vision for India’s engagement with this region.
She said India’s Act East Policy is at the heart of the country’s eastward orientation and ties with broader approach to the Indo-Pacific.
India, she said, is looking towards a more sustainable future for this region, by collaborating with regional partners on Blue Economy projects, harnessing renewable energy, investing in development of desalination technologies, harvesting the biodiversity of the oceans and sustainably mining the ocean depths for marine minerals.
In all these engagements, she said, India is guided by the development and security priorities of its partners.
“Our approach is based on inter-dependence rather than dominance or narrow reciprocal considerations. We support responsible and transparent debt financing matched by responsible lending practises,” she said.
Stressing on developing the region to its fullest potential, she said the region cannot be only a growth-engine; it has to be a community of ideas and commitments.
“We have to commit to the ideas of a rules-based order, equality under international law, peaceful resolution of disputes, and equitable distribution of the benefits of globalisation.”
Swaraj said in an inter-dependent world characterised by enhanced economic and trade linkages, the importance of sustainable use of ocean resources cannot be overstated.
Swaraj said India’s vision for the region is one of cooperation and collective action.
“We cannot tap the bounty of the Indian Ocean without ensuring maritime peace and stability. Economic prosperity and maritime security go hand-in-hand,” she said.
Swaraj is in Vietnam on the first leg of her four-day two-nation tour which aims at deepening India’s strategic cooperation with Vietnam and Cambodia — the key countries in the ASEAN region.